The Risk of Legionella and other waterborne pathogens in water distribution systems is an escalating worldwide problem, which is becoming increasingly recognised in Australia.

This has lead to growing legal implications on organisations and the need for ongoing compliance with relevant guidelines regulations, which are calling for a thorough Risk Analysis and Risk Management process. Legislation is in the process of being harmonised across all states and territories of Australia, requiring organisations and bodies to become proactive in managing their risks.

Failure to be compliant with current acts and regulations can result in penalties imposed on an individual and the organisation. If this lack of compliance then also results in a person contracting Legionnaires Disease, the case can lead to litigation and serious legal consequences, not to mention the impact on the organisation’s reputation.

The latest Australian-wide guidelines on managing the risk of Legionella in water distribution systems (the enHealth guidelines) stipulate an interdisciplinary team approach, where people with comprehensive expertise in various aspects of the water distribution system from within and outside of the organisation form a risk management team.

This approach goes way beyond the mindset of having an untrained person take a few samples every quarter and formalising a procedure in a document which then collects dust on a shelf and is largely unknown to most people in the organisation. Often, the procedures are reactive, meaning, they only respond to a problem when it’s identified rather than preventing it.

In addition, the “fix” for a positive Legionella sample is to run hot water through the affected outlet for a few minutes and hoping the next sample will be “ok”. This mindset is very dangerous and “hit and miss”, as it doesn’t look at the system as a whole in all its details. It cannot determine the root cause of the problem but – as an analogy – tries to fix a broken bone with a band aid.

In order to manage the risk properly, the team approach calls for a sound understanding of a variety of factors in the water distribution systems. Some of those factors are of a purely technical nature, such as the hydraulics, system temperatures, number of thermostatic mixing valves etc. Other factors, however, include the number of people who are exposed to the water distribution systems and the health profile/risk of those people.

The organisation’s Risk Management Team needs to base their decisions on accurate information about the water distribution system which is often not available. Therefore, no informed decisions can be made.

So, how do we get this information?